ADELAIDE: Anti-Semitism was not an entrenched characteristic of Islamic ideology and history until the 20th century. Without doubt, European anti-Semitic writings and their translation into Arabic during the 19th century and German National Socialism in the 20th century were instrumental in instigating anti-Semitism throughout Arab lands.
The Zionist project for a Jewish state was predicated on centuries of Jewish sufferings in Europe. But the establishment of Israel in Palestine was intricately intertwined with the political expediencies of European imperialism which paid little attention to the resistance of native Palestinians to its establishment. The Zionists accepted the European imperialists’ negative stereotypes of the natives who were expected passively to accept plans made for their land.
But historical accounts that support such a claim have one serious shortcoming, invariably treating the Arabs as empty vessels, gullible and unreflective subjects devoid of all intellectual abilities to reflect on and analyze the existential conditions of their social, political and economic predicaments. Any serious student of Arab and Islamic history would reject such characterizations.
Arab leaders – including Mufti el-Husseini, the Islamic Brothers and Imam Izz al Din Al Qassam of Haifa and his followers – had been in the forefront of political resistance to increasing Jewish immigration and the British plan to establish a new Jewish state in Palestine. The failure of their political resistance radicalized them to resort to the armed struggle against Zionists and their supporters. In a number of his books and especially in his book “Question of Palestine,” the late American Palestinian academic Edward Said describes how Zionism, a European imperialist idea, was imported to Palestine. Native Palestinians paid for that idea and suffer in concrete ways, which is why they protested and rebelled against it.
Zionism, like European imperialism, viewed Palestine as an empty territory, paradoxically filled with ignoble and even despicable natives. Chaim Weismann, a leading Zionist and the first president of Israel, acknowledged that Zionism allied itself with imperial powers in carrying out the plans to establish a new Jewish state in Palestine, according to Said. Zionism regarded “the natives” negatively, as a people expected to accept passively the plans made for their land.
A number of Zionist historians including Yehoshua Porath and Neville Mandel empirically show that well before World War I, Palestinians fiercely resisted the ideas of Zionist colonizers, not because the natives thought that Jews were evil, but because most natives do not take kindly to having their territory settled by foreigners.
Zionism not only accepted the generic racial concepts of European culture, but also banked on the fact that Palestine was home to a backward people who would not resist dominance. In formulating the concepts of a Jewish nation “reclaiming” its own territory, this implicit assumption of domination led Zionism to ignore the natives. It led Zionism to develop a consciousness of itself, but not of the natives.
As noted by historian and sociologist Maxime Rodinson, Zionist indifference to the Palestinian natives was an indifference linked to European supremacy, which benefited even Europe’s proletarians and oppressed minorities. In fact, if the ancestral homeland had been occupied by one of the well-established industrialized nations that ruled the world at the time, one that had thoroughly settled down in a territory it had infused with powerful national consciousness, then the problem of displacing, for example, German, French or English inhabitants and introducing a new nationally coherent element into the middle of their homeland would have been in the forefront of the consciousness of even the most ignorant and destitute of Zionists.
The constitutive energies of Zionism were premised on the excluded presence, that is, the functional absence of “native people” in Palestine. A popular Zionist slogan was, “A people without land for a land without people.”
Several Israeli leaders have denied the existence of Palestinian people. In a statement to the Sunday Times of June 15, 1969, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir declared: “There is no such thing as Palestinian people…. It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They did not exist.”
Israel built institutions, deliberately shutting out the natives; the nation drafted laws, ensuring that natives would remain in their “non-place.” The “problem” of Palestinians unites Israelis, and the negation of Palestinians is the most consistent thread running through Zionism. Thus, Palestinians and Arabs tie Zionism to imperialism.
The exclusion of Palestinians from their own land was and is the root cause of their anti-Jewishness and paradoxically led them to embrace the ideology of anti-Semitism. This narrative of exploitation, dispossession and humiliation is also the cause of resentment and anger in other Muslim lands, although understandably the details differ.
Palestine – and the plight of Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – is the single most important factor in the incorporation of anti-Semitism in the contemporary Arab Muslim consciousness and, in particular, in the agenda of modern Islamist movements.
Thus, the genesis and character of Palestinian and Arab anti-Semitism are grounded in existential conditions and not in the impulses of Islamic theology. Islamic values are largely co-opted as a sacred motif for mass appeal and mobilization.
In short, the growth of anti-Semitism in the Arab Muslim world, an unfamiliar ideology during much of Muslim history, can be traced to a number of causes: the imperialist challenge and the nationalist response; the rise, in a time of violent and painful change, of a new intolerance that exacerbated all hatreds and endangered all minorities; the rise of the Nazi ideology that elevated the extermination of the Jews and anti-Semitism to a national goal of the Nazi state; the Nazi success in exporting propaganda to the Arab Muslim lands, exploiting their resentments; and the Zionist settlement of Palestine, leading to the establishment of Israel and the succession of Arab-Israeli wars.
The Israeli-Arab-Palestinian war, which continues unabated, has highlighted the economic, political and military impotence that generates an unprecedented sense of humiliation among the Arabs. The US-led “War on Terror,” widely viewed in the Muslim world as a “War on Islam,” adds to the humiliation.
The causes of anti-Semitism within Islamist movements thus lie largely in the prevailing political, social and economic conditions and the conflicts arising from them. Islamic symbols are co-opted as a sacred motif for the political mobilization of the resistance efforts.